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Key Things to Remember about Residency Interviews

  • Residency interviews differ significantly from medical school interviews.
    When applying to medical school, you had no medical and possibly limited life experience, and were looking simply to find a place to learn to be a doctor. But now you have chosen a specific field, and programs are looking for the “best and brightest” individuals who will fit in well with their current residents and institutional culture. Consequently, the nature of the interview relationship is markedly different between medical school and residency training – a program may be just as interested in recruiting you as you are in seeking to match at a particular program.

  • Residency interviews tend to be more like a job interview than an application to a school.
    Although many residency programs are affiliated with medical schools, they are looking for trainees who are willing and able to take on the clinical care of a large portion of their institution’s most complex patients as part of the educational process. Therefore, they want not only competent ‘students’, but also people who will be able to effectively manage the responsibilities associated with patient care. Or, in other words, they are looking for individuals who will be their professional colleagues in the teaching, learning, and patient care process. Consequently, the nature of the interviews tends to be more conversational and collegial as they try to find out about you and see if you would be a good fit for their program. Very few (if any) residency interviews are confrontational or intimidating; interviewers might ask some challenging questions, but these really do not differ from those that might be asked in the course of an interview for any professional job (see sample questions below). Also keep in mind that most programs are looking at you with a longer time horizon than you may think. As opposed to medical school where it is expected you will complete your studies in four years and leave, residency programs are looking to see if you may be someone they eventually might want to ask to be a chief resident, fellowship trainee, or faculty member, similarly to someone applying for a permanent position.

  • In residency interviews, expressing who you are is as important as what you know.
    Virtually everyone applying to an internal medicine residency is smart, and program directors can glean this information fairly easily from your transcripts, exam scores, and letters of recommendation. The fact that you were offered an interview means that you are a reasonable candidate based on your medical school accomplishments and recommendations. What is more difficult for programs to understand is what kind of person you really are – your values, the motives that have led you to pursue a career in internal medicine, how you view caring for patients and interacting with others, your professional hopes and dreams, etc. Because of this, it is important that you be prepared to help them see you for who you are. This can be done through your curriculum vitae and personal statement, but the interview is a way that programs seek to discover the person behind the application materials.

  • Residency interviews are an extremely important part of the process.
    Even if interviews seem time consuming, burdensome, and the significance of the specific information you take away from your interviews may be unclear. Many students find interviews on the surface to be minimally helpful – the curriculum seems to be the same everywhere (which it pretty much is), you are told how strong the educational program and commitment to teaching is (without being able to know if this is true), and the tour is fairly programmed (since most hospitals and clinics look the same), etc. However, what you get from visiting a program is invaluable in helping you decide on whether to rank a program and at what level. Actually seeing and experiencing the educational, clinical, and social atmosphere of a place is worth more than any brochure or website can relate. And, assessing whether a place “feels right” and whether you can envision yourself working there next year and beyond may be one of the most helpful pieces of information you can have in making your final rank list choices.

  • Make sure you follow the general guidelines of interviewing.
    Although you may be accustomed to having the flexibility and casualness that being a student affords, remember that residency programs are evaluating your candidacy for a professional clinical and educational position. Therefore, how you present and comport yourself and interact with others is an extremely important part of the interview process.

  • Pay particular attention to the residents currently in the program.
    Residents are perhaps the best barometer of what life at a residency program is like. Although the opportunities for direct interaction with residents will differ between interviews, and programs will undoubtedly want to expose you to their strongest, most satisfied trainees, it is usually possible to get a sense of how happy the residents are and what the quality of their educational experience is like. It is important for you to ask questions of them that are important to you, and remember that no program or institution is perfect. Ideally you would like to hear a fair and balanced assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a program, and how satisfied the current residents are with their educational, patient care, and personal experiences. This is perhaps one of the most valuable things you can take away from your interview day.

  • It is OK to ask important questions of your interviewers.
    Interviewers, for the most part, expect you to ask specific questions about the program and institution, and if they are unable to provide an answer, will most likely refer your question to someone who can. That said, your questions should be reasonable and insightful, and not make it appear as though you are “checking off” items on a list of requirements you want a program to have or are overly focused on specific issues such as work-life balance or fellowship matching. Rather, it is important to ask questions relevant to your interests and show them that you are critically analyzing the program. You should definitely have a list of questions prepared, and do not be afraid to ask the same question many times over to different people during your interview day which should provide a broader perspective of the program.

  • Be open and honest with your interviewers.
    It is important to deal directly with any specific issues that your interviewers might raise, such as prior academic difficulty or any other concerns they may have with items in your application materials. Answering truthfully, credibly, and candidly is part of demonstrating collegiality and professionalism, even with difficult topics.

  • Don’t overly focus on communicating a level of interest in a particular program.
    You should be as honest as possible if asked about your level of interest in a program. Programs rarely use an expression of interest on the interview day as an indicator of if or where they might place you on their rank list. It is disingenuous to indicate a definitive level of interest in all of the programs at which you interview. However, if you are genuinely considering ranking a specific program highly, it is OK to say so.

  • Do not place significant weight on online residency review sites that you may review either before or after your interview.
    As with most open websites, those who write tend to be those who have either had a very bad or very good experience at an institution, and this information is therefore fairly suspect in terms of its usefulness in helping you genuinely evaluate a program.

Imagine the Possibilities: Careers in Internal Medicine

This career-counseling brochure [PDF] contains information about careers in internal medicine and is designed for medical and pre-medical students.

Other Residency Resources

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